Devon MP Anne-Marie Morris keeps Gove on his toes

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A study by the Association for Computational Linguistics (AMACL) found that those who are ‘excessively polite’ are considerably more likely to betray peers or comrades than those who are not very polite. In short, overly polite people are the most likely to be potential backstabbers. Now, who does that remind us of?

Michael Gove is truly gifted when it comes to using extreme politeness as a lethal weapon. He is Government’s iron fist in a velvet glove. If Dickens were alive today, he would model a villain on him. Gove combines the false humility of Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), the scheming of Josiah Tulkinghorn (Bleak House), the hypocrisy of Seth Pecksniff (Martin Chuzzlewit), the disloyalty of Edward ‘Monks’ Leeford (Oliver Twist) and is as lacking in morality as Monsieur Rigaud (Little Dorrit). On top of that, Gove is the epitome of snake-oil obsequiousness.

None of those qualities availed him when he came up against Anne-Marie Morris at the European Scrutiny Select Committee meeting on February 8. She was ready for him, and did well playing him at his own game. Most of us would have been grinding our teeth in response to his non-answers, but Ms Morris remained uber-polite, poised and patient. She quietly persisted with her questions, coming back with the same one over and over again without any visible frustration at Gove’s refusal to answer. Perhaps she was channelling her inner Jackie Weaver. Not only politicians, but also journalists could learn a thing or two from her performance.

At the meeting, Ms Morris’s focus was transparency. She was unhappy that parliament only hears about the decisions of the Joint Committee (on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol) after they have been made; she wanted parliament to have a greater say. Sounds reasonable, right? After all, when VoteLeave wanged on about “take back control”, most of us interpreted that to mean ‘parliament’. It seems Dominic Cummings, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson had other ideas…

Gove tried to put Ms Morris off by saying that he thought parliament got enough information through ministerial statements and select committee meetings like this one. This was the typical oleaginous Govian answer. Ms Morris was not for being put off. She insisted on ex-ante scrutiny; not solely ex-post. Gove said there was a ministerial statement with the agenda published before each meeting. “Within what timeframe?” Ms Morris fired back.

This is a government that is infamous for avoiding scrutiny, and for orchestrating sham exercises of scrutiny, where draft laws and treaties are provided too late for thorough perusal, and debate is curtailed. This anti-democratic behaviour makes it impossible for MPs to do their job properly — the job for which we pay them £80,000 a year, plus sometimes as much as double that in expenses. Ms Morris tried to pin Gove down: would he commit to publishing the statement and the agenda at least seven days before? Of course not, but by way of consolation he conceded it was certainly a good target to aim for.

Ms Morris then turned her attention to the specialised committees set up under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), which is the formal name of Johnson’s Brexit deal. The TCA established a Partnership Council, which has a governance function with respect to the TCA itself, as well as responsibility for supplementary agreements between the UK and the EU. They may delegate their work to any of the sixteen specialised committees or four working groups, which will eventually be established by the council. 

“How will specialised committees under the TCA provide transparency?” Ms Morris asked.

“As we settle into a rhythm of meeting, so we will settle into a rhythm of sharing,” Gove said.

At least he endowed his content-free answer with a lick of lyricism. Ms Morris pushed for the same seven-day window to scrutinise the work of the specialised committees as for the work of the Joint Committee on the Irish Protocol. Gove would do his best, but couldn’t promise, especially if we found ourselves in an emergency, fast-moving situation… cue ERG Deputy Chair and Clwyd West MP David Jones to mischaracterise and over-dramatise the Article 16 incident at the end of January.

That was not the end of Anne Marie Morris’s contribution, however. The chair, Sir William Cash, invited her back later on in the hearing. This time she talked about the Partnership Council itself. Specifically, she wanted to know why the prime minister had not yet nominated the minister who would chair it (together with a representative of the EU).

“Until that appointment is made, the council cannot meet, and that seems to me to be a very unhappy state of affairs. What’s stopping the prime minister making that appointment? Is it going to be you?”

Gove stonewalled. There was nothing stopping the prime minister from making his decision. He was sure whatever decision the prime minister made, it would always be the right one. Gove really should be forbidden from making statements like that so soon after lunch. It was enough to make you lose the contents of your stomach. Ms Morris wasn’t about to be neutralised by an overdose of saccharine sentiment.

“So why hasn’t he [the prime minister] made it? If there’s nothing to stop him, we should have the decision tomorrow, surely.”

“Well, it is above my paygrade. The prime minister makes decisions. I do what he tells me. It is not the other way around.” Hmm. Methinks the ambitious Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – CDL to his work colleagues – doth protest too much…

“We haven’t received an answer,” Ms Morris reminded him. Nor would she receive one — not that day, at least.

It was an extraordinary meeting, not just because Ms Morris managed to go the distance with Gove, and probably won on points, but also because of the five MPs (besides the Chair) who attended the meeting, three were from the South West. Also in attendance were men of the people, Richard Grosvenor Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, Dorset’s biggest landowner and MP for South Dorset, and Australian-born former investment banker Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil.

Drax focused his questions on whether the Irish Protocol is working. Despite putting the boot into the EU at every opportunity, Gove’s response was to be patient and give it a chance. “People in Northern Ireland are upset about the Irish Sea Border,” Drax whined. That’s what you get for putting your trust in Boris Johnson, a man who echoed Theresa May’s dictum that it was something no British Prime Minister could ever do, and even repeated it in a speech at the DUP’s conference, before going off and doing it…

Only that’s not what Gove said.

Instead, he held up the Joint Committee as evidence that both parties knew there would be problems and had the foresight to set up a review mechanism, which was proof of a degree of flexibility. Drax was not a happy bunny. But the union! Is the Irish Protocol not a threat to UK unity? The goal had been to take the UK out of the EU as one, single country. “Have we not failed?” asked Drax. He should know better than to ask Supremo ‘CDL’ Michael Gove to admit to failure. Of course, it is more likely than not that both Northern Ireland and Scotland will depart the UK, because —Brexit and Boris Johnson. But Gove’s head might explode were he ever to concede that.

Drax’s next line of questioning was on how the UK would influence EU laws, which was gobsmacking on various levels. First, there was the stench of British exceptionalism. We have left the EU and our government’s behaviour has been churlish, but still, we expect to be able to have a say on their laws? Then, beneath that lay the tacit admission that we are in the EU’s regulatory orbit with no say, and we will be impacted by everything they do. Gove encouraged Drax in his delusion of continuing British influence. It brought home the intergalactic-scale of British stupidity in going ahead with Brexit.

Fysh’s questions were altogether more mundane. It didn’t feel as if his heart was in them, especially as he was reading them and couldn’t take his eyes off the text. Horror stories have been seeping through from our borders, despite what appears to be a secret Faustian pact between the mainstream media and government to keep quiet about it. Yet we have not yet experienced full-throttle Brexit, as the TCA contains a number of grace periods. Fysh wanted to know what would happen if grace periods are not extended, and what the government was doing to prepare business for this eventuality.

“Not a lot,” I could have answered. No need. It was clear from Gove’s non-answer. He said it was true many businesses had not been ready, but it was nobody’s fault but his own — no, it wasn’t a prelude to his resignation, so don’t get your hopes up. As to grace periods and derogations, he was not in the mood for speculation. We would cross that bridge when we came to it.

Having promised to come back and talk to the committee again soon, Gove then made his excuses and sidled off to another meeting. He had had the floor for most of the session, yet it was Anne Marie Morris who was the undoubted star. Even so, if this largely dull meeting was anything to go by, the abolition of the select committee on our future relationship with the EU chaired by Hilary Benn is going to be a huge loss to British democracy.